The contents of rubbish bins have never been so closely inspected. Mary Bell outlines councils’ important leadership role in waste minimisation.
Long gone are the days of tossing out anything and everything unwanted. Today, household trash is divided into recyclables, organic waste and rubbish, and, in the future, this will be encouraged even more.
In an ideal world very little would end up at landfill – household gardens would thrive on composted organic materials, everything that could be reused or recycled would find its way into the hands of someone who could do just that, and very little would be left in what has traditionally been the rubbish bin.
However, as idyllic as this picture is, it has a number of big impediments to achieving it – namely, the money to put all this in place and the necessary behavioural changes in the public.
Traditionally, waste collection and disposal has been in the hands of the local council, but changes over the past 20 years have seen increasing privatisation of services. As Paul Evans, CEO of WasteMINZ says, “In some areas the private sector may be competing with council funded collections and, in the most extreme instances, councils have opted to leave service provision entirely to the private sector.”
If that is the case, should local authorities really be interested in the contents of their ratepayers’ rubbish bins? Well, yes.
“Under the Waste Minimisation Act 2008, councils are responsible for developing waste management and minimisation plans [WMMPs] for their jurisdiction, whether they control the waste stream or not,” says Paul. “If councils are to truly address their obligations under the WMA and make a substantive difference to waste minimisation, they must look at the waste market in its entirety and how they can influence this more effectively.”
Paul sees this issue of how to effectively influence waste outside the direct control of local government as a key issue facing councils. He says there is a fine balance between councils fulfilling their legislative role and ensuring locally appropriate outcomes, whilst not impeding the provision of cost effective and innovative commercial services.
“Having a robust and effective dialogue with waste producers, and the community and private sectors is essential,” he says. “Council, the community sector and commercial industry need to work collaboratively.
“Currently, ratepayers are essentially lumped with the cost of effective recycling or recovery, whilst many of those involved in the life of the product are absolved of responsibility. This current model provides no real incentive for industry at large to reduce the amount of waste materials produced.”
Along with funding the disposal of waste, there are cost implications around carbon charging and emissions trading on waste disposal. Whichever way you look at it, one key word keeps cropping up: cost. Who pays, how much they pay and what they pay for is something that local authorities have to work out.
Historically, rates have been used to fund rubbish collection and disposal. These days more councils are opting for a ‘pay per throw’ approach to waste, which is priced to promote waste minimisation, says Paul, while recycling services are, for the most part, still rates funded.
As Peter Askey, principal environmental engineer at Opus International Consultants, says, in the next 10 years local authorities will need to consider the “higher costs of providing service, through costs around methane emissions and fossil fuels”.
Over the next decade he expects to see an increasing emphasis on materials recovery from the waste stream and removal of materials at source, as we are seeing with food waste – local authorities “providing more and more diverse collection and separation facilities and services”.
“Challenges in addressing these issues will be primarily those of funding, in that cost of service provision will increase, most probably without commensurate increase in funding from central government,” he told Local Government Magazine.
Chris Purchas of Tonkin & Taylor says in the next 10 years we can expect to see some councils exit waste service provision, while others become more involved.
“For example, Auckland Council is moving to taking a stronger lead role in household waste management through collections. Councils without [landfill] disposal infrastructure will struggle to influence commercial and industrial waste management to any great degree,” he says.
He also cites a “lack of clear direction from central government” as a challenge facing local government. This could be overcome by local government coordinating “more effectively to form a common view on identifying and managing risks and best (appropriate) practice,” he says.
He also recommends councils identify the potential impacts of various policy settings on cost and risk.
John Cocks of MWH Global says the increased emission unit cost under the Emissions Trading Scheme and associated increase in cost of waste disposal will lead to increased fly tipping and costlier landfill contracts. He says councils will need to influence people’s behaviour to minimise waste.
He also points out that a ‘one service suits all’ approach will need to change to different approaches in different communities.
John believes local authorities will need to “review funding methods to shift the financial load from residents, particularly in smaller communities; pay careful attention to procurement of services, support community groups and initiatives; and show strong and well-promoted leadership”.
Our experts agree that councils have a strong leadership role to play in waste minimisation. It seems likely the future will see councils focusing more on policy and planning, with a strong emphasis on waste reduction and behavioural change.
This article was first published in the September 2016 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.